(first posted 1/18/2014) The 1980s are not remembered as a time of subtlety, and after nearly fifteen years characterized by social consciousness and morality, overindulgence was back in. It usually takes a few years for car design to catch up with buyers’ expectations, making product planning more difficult than in other industries. Honda, however, managed to cook up a new Accord for 1986 that appealed to sobered-up flower children and cut-throat yuppies alike.
The late production coupe pictured here is a well-loved example, as evidenced by the OEM replacement exhaust and fresh attempts to halt the spread of rust. An early production hatchback or sedan would be closer to the designers’ original intent, but the difficulty in finding any after multiple attempts to do so highlights the rarity of these nearly thirty-year-old cars in states where salt is used.
Occurring at the height of the decade’s zeitgeist, the launch of the third generation of Honda’s biggest US market seller occurred at the best possible time. While the high end of the market was full of rationally conceived cars designed with some extra flair, low to middle priced offerings of the day were often coldly utilitarian or crude and gimmicky. The success of cars like the Celica and GTI exploited this gap to good effect, and Honda sought to apply a similar philosophy toward its own product design. The new Accord was therefore the product of a very smart as well as bold company.
A smaller player in Japan than its domestic rivals, Honda made a name for itself in the US by selling cars which combined shrewd engineering and high quality with good value. But despite a reputation for a satisfying driving experience, sex appeal was never a part of the equation. That began to change in 1983 when the second generation of the Prelude debuted with low-slung, wedge shaped styling. The successful third-generation Civic, which followed a year later, brought the same look to one of the company’s biggest sellers, justifying the risk of peddling sportiness in a conservative segment.
As the best seller in its biggest market, Honda had even more riding on the Accord’s shoulders. With its design fully locked-in well before the NHTSA repealed its ban on composite headlights, Honda chose to ignore the imposed styling limitations by using retractable headlights, as they had done on the Prelude.
Double-wishbone front suspension, also seen on the Prelude, both enabled and fulfilled the promises put forth by the lithe sheet metal. For the first time, it was accompanied by an unequal-length control arm set up at the rear (patent here), making the new Accord the first front wheel drive car with control arms locating the wheels at all four corners.
The result was a four-door sedan with a height of 53 inches and the nose of a sports car; the 3-door hatchback, now in its final generation, was even lower. With a long wheelbase of 102.4 inches, a radically low cowl, slim pillars and wrap-around rear window, it was a presentation of optimism that completely ignored the postmodern disillusionment of the prior decade and a half.
The gamble paid off: while the Accord was the seventh best selling car in the US in 1985, it held the number one spot four years later. Styled in-house, the shape was less successful in predicting the future than Ford’s Taurus, but its crisp edges and lean proportions conveyed sportiness in a way no sedan on the market did. In 1986, this was paydirt, and the looks were functional as well. With a Cd of .32, the four-door was more aerodynamic than all other US market sedans, bar the Audi 5000 and Mercury Sable.
Success in design was also evident in the interior, which continued the theme of the first and second-generation cars. Unlike the Japanese and American competition, the Accord’s interior avoided questionable filigree in the form of metallic-finish surfaces, digital readouts, faux stitching or woodgrain, or tufted upholstery. And unlike VW, the only significant European competition (unless one includes the Renault Medallion), the excellent ergonomics didn’t suffer austere presentation. Dense fabric lined the bottoms of the doors, each with their own puddle light, along with felt on the backs of front seats (and on the roof pillars of LX-i models before 1988), and plush upholstery covering all seating surfaces and most of the door trim. Combined with an excellent HVAC system, the overall effect was one of warmth and quality, long synonymous with the nameplate.
Auto manufacturers would do well to study this nearly thirty-year-old interior design today. Ignoring the expansive glass area, which is a product of the car’s overall architecture, and the generous use of materials, one significant and favorable difference is seen in the arrangement of controls. The opening between the center console and the bottom of the dashboard benefited both knee room and perception of space. Today’s intrusive center consoles, on the other hand, restrict movement and force some drivers’ right knee out of the way (this in spite of today’s cars’ enormous widths).
There were, of course, trade-offs for all the money spent on styling, chassis design and the interior. A major one was the use of a 2-barrel carburetor on most models. While a twelve-valve cylinder head was standard on all Hondas beginning in 1984, the 1986 Accord’s iron-block engine, now upsized to a full two-liters, did without vestigial CVCC hardware for the first time. That, unfortunately, was not enough to keep up with competitors, many of which had fuel injection systems, such as the Mazda 626, Toyota Camry, Nissan Stanza and VW Golf/Jetta. Accord owners who didn’t spring for the new top of the line LX-i trim level had to pump their accelerators and wait while their cold engines warmed up at 2500 rpm. With 98-horsepower, the standard engine initially generated more power than competitors, but they quickly leapt ahead. The LX-i’s fuel injected engine, shared with the Prelude Si, made a full 110-hp, without embarrassing fast idling.
With their focus on solid midrange power, engines punched above their weight at the expense of effortless pull from a standstill and when hooked to the maker’s typically excellent five-speed transmission, sixty miles an hour was delivered in the low nine-second range. When the harsh, hydraulically controlled four-speed automatic was ordered, this increased to about twelve seconds. It’s worth remembering that the glowing praise heaped upon the car was because test subjects were generally equipped with manual transmissions. Fortunately, this was also how many were ordered.
The driving experience was largely positive. Visibility was excellent, as was the driving position. The beltline was two inches lower than before, seemingly at waist height, and the long wheelbase ensured no intrusion into the front footwells. As far as front wheel drive cars were concerned, both these traits were unique to Honda. Also helping matters were long seat cushions with a pronounced angle, eliminating the lack of thigh support that would otherwise accompany such an unusually low driving position.
Engines were quiet by the standards of the era, maintaining their signature metallic roar. A symmetrical exhaust manifold eliminated the low-rpm throb common in other designs, which grouped all the headers off to the side. As was characteristic of the company’s engines, throttle response was sharp, even with the carburetor, and despite very mild tuning, high-rpm running was also eager, sounding enthusiastic rather than strained. This was a good thing, as cars equipped with the automatic demanded abusive treatment from the driver when passing on two-lane roads.
The front suspension was adapted almost directly from the Prelude, which placed second only to Porsche’s 944 in a Car and Driver handling comparison. The Accord’s handling was also commendable, with minimal body lean, abundant feel through the controls and easily exploited grip. Understeer was less evident than in later model Accords, but this was still not a throttle adjustable car, in the manner of VW’s Golf and Jetta or Mazda’s 323 and 626. Further limitations were imposed by small, thirteen-inch wheels, which failed to fully take advantage of the excellent handling characteristics.
A much bigger problem was a fundamental absence of body control, combined with extremely limited suspension travel. Honda bragged that their advanced suspension design freed the shock absorbers, no longer housed inside a strut, from the burden of maintaining suspension geometries. While this was true, it was a poor justification for an under-damped chassis. The result was that, on smooth surfaces, minor road imperfections were absorbed well. Big bumps taken at low speed–such as potholes or speed bumps–caused the suspension to crash through very easily, because unlike other cars with similarly soft suspensions, the Accord’s wheels simply had no place to go.
Another issue affecting the car since its first generation was power steering that was comically light at low speeds, seemingly detached from any hardware. Fortunately, feel through the wheel was restored as assist rapidly, and abruptly, tapered off above approximately twenty miles per hour. At higher speeds, undulations in the road surface could cause noticeable bounce, but as small ripples were well managed, the highway ride remained comfortable. Effective geometries also meant that available grip was retained over mid-corner bumps. Still, the inadequate damping conspired with the small tires and brakes (limited by the size of the thirteen inch wheels) to create long stopping distances. This, as well as significant fade, were typical issues with the company’s brakes. Honda did have its own two-channel anti-lock braking system, but this was not available in North America.
Honda was presumably aware of all these complaints because all models built after 1988 received additional structural reinforcements and sound deadening, helping address the car’s fragile feel over large bumps taken at low speed, as well as enhanced corrosion protection. Further improvements on the LX-i included upsized front brakes rotors, now housed in appropriately larger fourteen-inch wheels, along with firmer springs and dampers. A variable intake manifold, increased compression ratio and a hotter cam brought horsepower up to 120 while achieving peak torque at lower speeds. These late production fuel-injected models remain desirable today.
Lower trim levels retained their 98 horsepower engine, but despite its now uncompetitive output and increasingly embarrassing carburetor, the last year of production was the most successful, with the Accord outselling all cars, foreign or domestic, including models with fleet sales.
The rising yen, and competition with Acura, prevented Honda from putting the aluminum twin cam B-block (confusingly, not the same B-block as used in the Civic, CRV and Integra) engines in the US market Accords. Further indications of the less favorable exchange rate included a vinyl headliner and the irresponsible deletion of the car’s flash-to-pass facility. Now, unless drivers used the button meant to raise the retractable units for maintenance, pulling back the headlight stalk merely illuminated the ground beneath the car.
One benefit of the stronger yen was the Ohio-only production of the two-door coupe, introduced in 1988 and exported to Japan. This was the second major milestone for the US auto industry achieved during the third generation Accord’s production. The first occurred upon its introduction, which happened at the same time the final second-generation car rolled off the assembly line. Usually, a full model change required a months-long shutdown; Marysville achieved it in one day.
The coupe’s introduction sadly foretold the three-door’s demise. Despite beginning life as a hatchback (or fast-back, if you prefer), the third-generation’s incredible popularity firmly established the Accord as an American motoring institution. The decreasing proportion of units sold by this variant, now the least popular of the three, no longer justified the expense in developing a successor model. To drive the point home, 1989’s limited edition SE-i, which came with leather, rear disc brakes and a twin-outlet exhaust, was restricted to the two and four-door body styles. Reflecting its maker’s pursuit of further mainstream success, the next generation car would be significantly larger and more conservative.
However, while the new car capitalized on the third generation’s success, continuing its status as a best seller through 1991, sales were down over twenty-five percent by 1993. The age of the average buyer also went up by five years. Despite eliminating a number of its predecessor’s flaws, the fourth generation was not as fresh by its final year of production. Blandness has similarly afflicted each of its successors, although the legacy of solid engineering in the ’80s and early ’90s managed to keep the company’s products up-to-date through the millennium while others caught up.
Honda is frequently cited as an engineering-led company, with engineers rising through the ranks to join management. Ironically, Nobuhiko Kawamoto, who was chief engineer when this car, and a number of Honda’s other highly successful models were conceived, put an end to this approach when he became CEO in late 1990. The company has since become increasingly financialized and market-driven, relying more on diversification and market research than it had since its founding.
The company’s sales presence today is much larger today than in the 1980s, but along with the increase in volume have come a number of critical, if not commercial, failures. Worse, the company has increasingly begun doing the unimaginable by moving metal with incentives, leases and discounts. Products have become more well-rounded, but also softer and more generic. The past several years have seen some of Honda’s cars panned out-right, with many correctly observing that they seemingly come from a different company than that which engineered such characterful best-sellers decades ago. The situation is even worse at Acura, whose cars compete in a segment where volume is less important than distinction and critical success.
None of this should suggest that Honda’s current crop of cars is in any way bad or that the changes which took place at the company were illogical. The Japanese economy changed and cost overruns became a concern, especially with the Yen’s rapid appreciation in the ’80s and ’90s. With that said, the most successful companies are often those which have a clear idea of what they believe a good product should be and those who are not afraid to challenge their customers. The 1986 Accord had some flaws, but its sophistication set it apart, even among Japanese competitors.
As Ford has now learned by selling almost the exact same cars as in Europe, buyers are willing to pay extra for a car which distinguishes itself from rivals. BMW and Mercedes are further examples. Like Honda, they have been widely admired and copied, and have shifted their focus toward expanding volume, with their latest cars often met with indifference (Mercedes in the ’90s, and BMW more so recently). As marketers like to say, sex sells. Remembering the role of confidence and character within that framework seems to be a greater challenge.
Widely copied and sold in large numbers, it’s easy to forget that Hondas had genuine personality and as their cars enjoyed a higher average transaction price than rivals, Honda was in a good position to move upmarket. The same year this Accord was introduced, of course, Acura was also launched. Just as the new brand kept the company’s best technology out of the Accord’s reach, a limited development budget meant competing with Germany’s finest was also out of the question. By the mid 1990s, without enough room to continue distinguishing itself as a more sophisticated alternative, Honda began to make its mainstream sedan bigger and more conventional. That makes the third generation an Accord unlike any other.